This was likely the first time a Rosh Hashanah sermon was covered by Iran’s national TV.
“An American rabbi has called for the genocide of all Muslims,” said the announcer on PressTV, Iran’s English language government-run network.
And while this report grossly misrepresented the words of Rabbi Shalom Lewis, his sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah was explosive enough to explain the national and international attention it brought to him and to his suburban Conservative synagogue just outside Atlanta.
Speaking to nearly 2,000 congregants attending High Holiday services at Congregation Etz Chaim in Marietta, Georgia, the veteran rabbi delivered a 10-alarm warning about the threat that he sees posed by Muslim extremists. He urged, in the harshest of tones, a U.S.-led war against violent Islamist groups, including some that are at war with each other and others that have launched terrorist attacks against Israel on the grounds that Israel has usurped their land, but which have avoided attacks elsewhere.
“They are all the same,” he said. “Hezbollah. Islamic Jihad. Al Shabab. Muslim Brotherhood. Boko Haram. Al Qaeda. Taliban. Iran.”
Lewis declared, “The fury of ultimate evil is upon us and we must act — not to contain it. Not to degrade it. Not to manage it. Not to tolerate it, but to exterminate it utterly and absolutely.”
The rabbi defined this war a “holy crusade,” and referred to adherents and sympathizers of these groups in terms that appeared to place them outside humanity.
“We are dealing with a moral species that eats its own, kills its young and celebrates innocent death as homage to God,” he said. “These Islamist criminals are unlike us in the most basic of ways and we have yet to accept and understand their total immersion in moral debauchery.”
Rabbi Jack Moline, a former Conservative pulpit rabbi who has known Lewis for years, termed Lewis’s call to arms “not helpful.”
“It would be wise for him to walk it back and to make clear he was not calling for any murderous rampage directed at any sect of Islam,” said Moline, who is now executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. He added: “Terms such as ‘extermination’ shouldn’t be used by a rabbi.”
High Holiday sermons are prime time spots for pulpit rabbis, who have a captive audience made up of almost all their congregation’s members. Their talks, as a rule, are prepared well in advance and carefully crafted to leave a lasting impression on congregants, many of whom will only visit the synagogue once or twice a year.
“It’s a fine art of balancing between speaking your mind and making sure it doesn’t fall on deaf ears,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Maryland. He noted, however, that many congregants appreciate when their rabbi takes a strong stand, even if they disagree with it.